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Victoria: Rise of an Empress

When control of the subcontinent was handed to the British Crown in 1858, it marked the start of a turbulent relationship. Lottie Gold?nch explains how Queen Victoria fell in love with a country she never stepped foot in
ILLUSTRATION: JEAN-MICHEL GIRARD/WWW.THE-ART-AGENCY.CO.UK, ALAMY X1

On 1 January 1877, while Queen Victoria was quietly celebrating the new year with her family at Windsor Castle, a spectacular celebration was taking place more than 4,000 miles away in Delhi, India, to mark the Queen’s new imperial role as Empress of India. Determined to ?aunt the power and majesty of the British Raj, Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, chose to revive Mughal traditions for the extravaganza, con?dent that it would be well received. A plan was coordinated to present leading Indian chiefs and princes with shield-shaped silk banners emblazoned with their coat of arms, albeit in a deliberate European style – “the further east you go, the greater becomes the importance of a bit of bunting”, the Viceroy is recorded as saying. By the end of 1876, more than 400 Indian princes, chiefs, officials and their retinues had gathered together in Delhi in preparation for the grand ceremony.

The resulting pageant was a sumptuous demonstration of British authority. The Viceroy and his family processed through the streets of Delhi on elephants, entering the specially constructed Throne Pavilion to a fanfare of trumpets and royal salutes.

For the proclamation ceremony itself, Lord Lytton sat enthroned beneath a huge portrait of Queen-Empress Victoria. Facing him were 63 ruling Indian chiefs, “all in gorgeous costumes of satin, velvet or cloth of gold”. A telegram sent by Lytton to the Queen later that day expressed his satisfaction and delight at the occasion: “There can be no question of the complete success of this great imperial ceremony,” he announced happily.

Indian princes arrive for the Delhi Durbar, which marked Queen Victoria’s accession to Empress of India

DID YOU KNOW?

When Victoria became queen, the Empire stood at 2 million square miles. Twenty-?ve years later, it had grown to 9.5m square miles

East India Company officers are entertained by Indian musicians and dancers. The company ruled parts of the subcontinent between 1757 and 1858
BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, GETTY X1

“Britain had desired a share in the profitable Indian spice trade”

THE ROAD TO INDIA

The elaborate proclamation ceremony may have, on the surface at least, neatly papered over the cracks in Anglo-Indian relations, but resentment and anger at British involvement in Indian a airs had been simmering for more than 300 years, well before Victoria came to the throne.

British presence in India had begun in 1600, with the formation of the East India Company (EIC) – a company whose purpose was to exploit trade with East and Southeast Asia and India. For years, Britain had desired a share in the rich and pro?table East Indian spice trade monopolised by Spain and Portugal, and in 1588, the defeat of the Spanish Armada had helped break European domination of the market. Despite Dutch opposition, England won trading concessions from the Mughal Empire and began to trade in cotton and silk, fabric goods, indigo dye, saltpetre (used to preserve meat and also make explosives) and spices.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

"With the release of Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench, we uncover the story behind Queen Victoria's love affair with India. From the dawn of the British Empire to Indian Independence, follow the Crown's tumultuous rule of the subcontinent. Also inside, get a blow-by-blow of the first mass tank battle of World War I, and find out how these machines have developed over the last 100 years. You can also meet the real Prince of Persia, Xerxes, and find out what happened after his infamous fight against 300 Spartans."